Croatia beat World Cup hosts Russia on penalties to set up England.

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Gareth Southgate has liberated England and now the country’s ambitions ought to be higher than 1990

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England will feel the stars are starting to align at this extraordinary World Cup but so, too, will Croatia who, ­having prevailed in the previous round against Denmark despite missing three penalties, have now eliminated the turbo-charged hosts in a similarly heart thumping shoot-out.

In one sense, England may be ­grateful to have avoided a semi-final meeting with Russia in Moscow, and what could have been one of the most politically charged games in history ­after the poisoning of a former KGB agent turned British spy and his ­daughter in Salisbury in March.

But on the other hand, Croatia could well provide a tougher obstacle on Wednesday night, all the more so if their captain and metronome Luka Modric hits the sort of stride he did here from half-time onwards and ­fortune continues to shine on Zlatko Dalic’s side.

“We expect a very difficult, tight and demanding match,” Modric said. “We watched their game against Sweden and we saw how good they are from dead-balls. We’ll have to focus more on defending from set-pieces because we conceded from a set-piece [against Russia], so we’ll have to improve that element of our game. We’ve already done some thing bigs, but this team can do more.”

Whatever the outcome, there is no danger of Gareth Southgate being diminished in the way Steve McClaren so cruelly was in the rain at Wembley in 2007. An umbrella may have shielded McClaren from the elements that ­evening, but not the ridicule that came his way after Croatia’s 3-2 victory, which denied England a place at Euro 2008 and saw the manager infamously dubbed “The Wally with the Brolly”.                                                         

Croatia penalties against Russia 

That all seems a very long time ago now and, as England look to banish 52 years of hurt, Southgate and his squad will no doubt be drawing inspiration from more positive encounters with Croatia, such as a swashbuckling 4-2 victory at Euro 2004 when a teenage Wayne Rooney ran riot or Theo ­Walcott’s hat-trick in a 4-1 World Cup qualifying win in Zagreb in 2008.

England may dare to believe, but Croatia are coursing with confidence as well and their luck is most certainly in.

They must have thought they had done enough to win it in extra-time when defender, Domagoj Vida, headed home in the 101st minute to put his side 2-1 in front after Andrej Kramaric, once of Leicester City, had cancelled out ­another stunner from man of the ­moment Denis Cheryshev.

But the Russia right-back, Mario ­Fernandes, had other ideas and, with just five minutes left, he headed home Alan Dzagoev’s free-kick to spark joy among the home ­supporters, take a breathless game to penalties and ­inspire hope of prolonging his country’s unexpected adventure.

They had both been in this position before – Russia against Spain, Croatia against Denmark.

Yet football can very quickly reduce a hero to zero and Fernandes would end up being the Russian fall guy.


After Fedor Smolov had missed ­Russia’s first penalty with an attempted panenka, Marcelo Brozovic scored but there was hope again for the hosts when Mateo Kovacic missed for ­Croatia after Dzagoev scored.

Step forward Fernandes. He looked petrified, white as a sheet, and that fear was reflected in the way he dragged his penalty horribly wide.

Croatia must have known this was their day when Modric’s penalty was tipped on to the inside of a post only to fly across the net and nestle in the other side. For a moment, the Real Madrid midfielder must have thought he had missed only to eventually wheel away in celebration, a fitting end to a fine performance.

Vida scored his spot-kick either side of Sergey Ignashevich and Daler Kuzyaev finding the net, leaving Ivan Rakitic with the opportunity to win it, as he had against Denmark. Once again, the Barcelona midfielder held his nerve, once again he sent the goalkeeper the wrong way.

Russia have defied all expectations at this tournament, but their race is finally run. You dare not blink at this tournament for fear of missing ­something. It has amazed and ­astonished with a regularity that, at times, has been hard to keep pace with and here was the latest delicious ­instalment of fast and furious football.

Russia were a whirlwind of energy and, even when they looked spent after Vida rose between Ilya Kutepov and Ignashevich to head Croatia in front, they found it within themselves to summon the strength to equalise.